10/03/2011 07:41 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Can Their Leaders Make the Very Hard Decisions Required for Peacemaking Between Israel and the Palestinians?

Now that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has applied to the U.N. for recognition of a Palestinian state and membership in the U.N., putting great pressure on all the parties, the Quartet (the United States, the U.N., the European Union and Russia) has presented a plan to the U.N. General Assembly. The plan calls for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet without preconditions within a month and to have security plans in place within three months. It calls for significant progress to be made within six months and a final peace agreement by the end of next year.

"What is all the negotiation about?" many people ask. "After all the years of negotiations, doesn't everyone know the issues and the solutions that are required for an end-of-conflict deal between the parties?" I think it is true that everyone involved knows the issues and even the ultimate outline of the deal. What most people don't realize is that two elements of the deal involve decisions by the two leaders that are not only difficult but possibly life-threatening. Let me elaborate.

There are three basic issues to be resolved by the parties. The first issue that was recently the focus of political conversation in this country and elsewhere is the question of borders: where are the borders of Israel and the Palestinian state, and how are they secured? President Obama raised a firestorm when he presented the concept in his May 19 speech stating that the U.S. "believes that negotiations should result in two states with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." I addressed that topic in my article in The Huffington Post titled "President Obama's speech and the Peace Process: Nothing Will Change."

The second issue requires a determination as to the status of Jerusalem, with the Palestinians seeking jurisdiction over East Jerusalem and the Israelis seeking to control an undivided Jerusalem as their capital.

The third issue relates to the Palestinian insistence on a "right of return" by Palestinians to the properties in Israel inhabited by their families before the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states that attacked it.

These were the topics of negotiation between Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak under the aegis of President Clinton in 2000. They were the same topics of negotiation between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. In Olmert's Sept. 21 op-ed in The New York Times, he summarized his proposed deal with Abbas as follows:

The parameters of a peace deal are well known and they have already been put on the table. I put them there in September 2008 when I presented a far-reaching offer to Mr. Abbas.

According to my offer, the territorial dispute would be solved by establishing a Palestinian state on territory equivalent in size to the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza Strip with mutually agreed-upon land swaps that take into account the new realities on the ground.

The city of Jerusalem would be shared. Its Jewish areas would be the capital of Israel and its Arab neighborhoods would become the Palestinian capital. Neither side would declare sovereignty over the city's holy places; they would be administered jointly with the assistance of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The Palestinian refugee problem would be addressed within the framework of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The new Palestinian state would become the home of all the Palestinian refugees just as the state of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. Israel would, however, be prepared to absorb a small number of refugees on humanitarian grounds.

Because ensuring Israel's security is vital to the implementation of any agreement, the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and it would not form military alliances with other nations. Both states would cooperate to fight terrorism and violence.

In that context, it is important to understand the truly difficult decisions for the respective leaders. Let's start with Mr. Netanyahu. There are now approximately 370,000 settlers in settlements located beyond the original 1967 borders, excluding Jerusalem. After drawing borders that would include the major settlements within Israel, there are still about 75,000 settlers left outside those borders who would face the choice of living in the new state of Palestine or leaving their homes to return to Israel. Even if, as it is estimated, about half would move out of their settlements in return for equivalent housing in Israel and/or some form of subsidy, that still leaves about 37,000 dedicated settlers who would fight the state of Israel against being uprooted from their homes and from land they believe is theirs by right.

Some commentators point to the successful evacuation of settlers out of the Sinai in 1982, as part of Prime Minster Begin's deal with President Sadat. But even in that case, the evacuation of Yamit required force, and Yamit only had some 3,000 settlers. Moreover, the Sinai settlements did not have the same level of emotional biblical ties as the West Bank. Forcing the settlers out today might well require military action by Israel against its own citizens, action by an army that has a significant proportion of senior officers and enlisted personnel who are religious and themselves believers in the right of Jews to inhabit the land given to them as described in the Old Testament.

Any deal with the Palestinians would require Netanyahu to convince his coalition to support such a forced displacement of settlers. His coalition consists of his own right-wing Likud party, together with the very nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party, led by politically ambitious Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has advocated a population exchange of Israeli Arabs by annexing the settlement blocs to Israel in exchange for heavily Arab-populated areas inside Israel. The other key member of the coalition is the Shas party, whose religious leader has consistently denigrated the Arabs, calling them "snakes." Under those circumstances, Netanyahu could well fear not only for his political life but for his safety -- witness the fate of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a religious zealot for bravely seeking a peace with the Palestinians.

On the other side, is Prime Minister Abbas who would have the burden of signing an agreement that would for all time relinquish the dream of millions of Diaspora and other Palestinians of the right to return to their claimed lands in Israel -- a dream that has passed from father to son to grandson and been at the center of some of those families' hopes for years. In 2000, just before Arafat entered into negotiations with Barak, a small group of us met with him and came away feeling that there was some room for negotiations about Jerusalem, which people then thought would be the major stumbling block. But I wrote publicly at the time that in my view, he was not prepared to trade away the "right of return." In the Palestinian political picture, Abbas is not in as strong a position as Arafat. He has to deal with the extremist Hamas party in Gaza that does not even recognize Israel and ultimately seeks its destruction. So for him, too, the threat is not only to his political life, but to the safety of his person.

Yes, we all understand the existential issues for the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. And, yes, we all hope that the leaders can muster the brave leadership required to inspire their people to take the risks of a deal to end their conflict. But we should understand the realities facing these leaders, how difficult the course ahead is for them, and how much support they each need from the rest of the world: members of the Quartet, the Arab nations and the other members of the United Nations. Yet, even with that support, it will require a strong commitment to a two-state solution and the courage to carry it out. There is nothing in the history of the two leaders that would indicate that they have the fortitude that would enable them to achieve a resolution of the conflict. Still, as we have seen in the case of Ireland, history is sometimes made by leaders who surprise us by overcoming their fears and prejudices. We can only hope that such is the case with this conflict.

Mr. Lifton, a business man and political activist is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the "Greatest Generation.'"